A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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This township, surrounding the parish church, has an area of only 572½ acres. (fn. 1) The boundary on the west is the Mere Brook dividing it from Aughton.
The fine old market-town of Ormskirk, noted for its gingerbread, lies on sloping ground on the side of a ridge, whose highest point is 254 ft. above sea-level. The small amount of open ground consists of pasture and cultivated fields, bare and almost destitute of trees. Two large water-works on Greetby Hill are prominent features, but hardly add to the beauty of the neighbourhood. The geological formation is similar to that of the adjacent townships. The town has grown up along the great road going north-west to Preston, named at this point Aughton Street and Burscough Street. At the market cross two other main roads branch out; Church Street leads north to the church, and turning round its east end branches off towards Scarisbrick and Halsall; while Moor Street, leading east, soon divides into roads leading to Bickerstaffe and Skelmersdale. The population in 1901 numbered 6,857.
The Liverpool and Preston Railway, opened in 1849, runs parallel to and on the east of the firstnamed highway. The station stands in the other main street of the town—Derby Street—parallel to and on the north of Moor Street. The houses have spread out to the east of the railway. A branch line of the London and North-Western Railway connects the town with St. Helens.
The market is held in Moor Street and Aughton Street. A clock tower was built here in 1876, (fn. 2) and the Corn Exchange was erected in 1896. In Moor Street is a statue of the earl of Beaconsfield, erected in 1884. The Savings Bank dates from 1822; a library was formed in 1854, and a working men's institute in 1867. Public pleasure grounds were opened in 1894.
The town is thus described by Leland, who visited it about 1535:—'Ormskirk, a four miles or five miles from Liverpool, and about a two miles from Lathom; a parish church in the town; no river by it, but mosses on each side.' (fn. 3) Camden, writing fifty or sixty years later, merely says that it was 'a market town, famous for the burial place of the Stanleys, Earls of Derby.' (fn. 4) A more vivid account of its state in 1598 is contained in one of the pleadings in the Duchy Court, as follows:—'Ormskirk is a great, ancient, and very populous town, and the inhabitants are very many, and a great market is kept there weekly besides two fairs every year; and the Quarter Sessions are held there twice a year, whereunto, as also to the church there on Sundays, holidays, and other days to divine service, weddings, christenings and burials, and also upon other great occasions, great multitudes of people continually thither repair.' (fn. 5)
The Quarter Sessions were held in Ormskirk from the time of Henry VIII onward until 1817, when they were transferred to Liverpool. (fn. 6) The ancient market and fairs were conveniently situated for the district, and have continued to the present day; the weekly market being held on Thursday, and the fairs on Whit Monday and Tuesday and on 10 and 11 September.
During the Civil-War period Ormskirk was the head quarters of the Parliamentary forces. At the Restoration Charles II was twice proclaimed at the market cross by John Entwisle, a prominent lawyer and justice of the peace. (fn. 7) Sir William Dugdale stayed here in 1664, when engaged upon the work of his visitation. References to it in the eighteenth century show that it was a miniature capital for the district, where public and private business could be transacted and social meetings and entertainments arranged. The Aughton races must have contributed to enliven its social life. There was also a cockpit in the town. (fn. 8) There yet remain, as inns, shops, or the like, some of the eighteenth-century town houses of the families who lived in the neighbourhood, plain but of good proportion and detail, and often containing fittings belonging to their better days. A good instance is the Wheatsheaf Inn, formerly belonging to the Rad-cliffes.
At the beginning of last century the place was described as 'a clean, well-built market town.' Cotton-spinning obtained a 'footing' here, but was abandoned, and about 1830 silk-weaving also was attempted. (fn. 9) About the same time hat-making was an important industry, but this also has decayed. (fn. 10)
In 1635 Ormskirk was a seat of the glove trade. (fn. 11)
Roperies and breweries are now the principal industries, and there is an iron foundry; while there are market gardens around the town. (fn. 12)
The ducking-stool formerly stood in Aughton Street, near the Mere Brook, but was removed in 1780. The dungeon and pillory were in the same street. The stocks were kept in the tower of the parish church, and when required for use were erected by the church gates, or by the fish-stones in Aughton Street. (fn. 13)
A number of books were published here early last century. (fn. 14) A newspaper, The Advertiser, was established in 1853, and continues to be issued weekly on Thursday.
The more noteworthy natives of the place include Austin Nuttall, author of the Dictionary; Alexander Goss, Catholic bishop of Liverpool; (fn. 15) and Robert Harkness, a geologist. (fn. 16) Of minor note was William Hill, who discovered a mad-dog medicine which made Ormskirk famous. (fn. 17) What is known as the Ormskirk watch escapement was invented about 1700 by Peter de Beaufre; these watches were extensively made in the town, and thence came the trade name. (fn. 18)
Several tokens were issued by tradesmen here in the seventeenth century. (fn. 19)
'In the old coaching days Ormskirk was a centre of great activity, the coaches on the turnpike road between Liverpool and Preston halting in the town for a "change" both for man and beast, and to set down and pick up passengers.' (fn. 20) The Directory of 1825 enumerates twenty-seven inns here, and a list of nine coaches passing through the town daily, or starting from it.
'The Curfew bell is rung at nine in summer and eight in winter . . . Within recent years there was also continued to be rung, for six weeks before Christmas and six weeks after, the bell known as the "Prentice Bell."' (fn. 21)
The market cross of Ormskirk stood on the site of the present clock tower. Outside the town to the north was Stockbridge Cross, the pedestal of which remains. (fn. 22)
The legend as to the two sisters and the tower and spire of the church is well known. (fn. 23)
The head of a pike was dug up in the churchyard in 1879. (fn. 24)
The plague or sweating sickness is said to have visited the town several times during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the last occurrence being in 1647. 'God's providence is our habitation' is carved on the front of a house to the east of the town, as a commemoration of the escape of its dwellers at that time. (fn. 25)
The churchwardens' accounts of 1665 and 1666 record a number of small payments for repairs to the church and its fittings; also for the destruction of 'vermin,' including orchants (hedgehogs), pianets (magpies), gels (jays), and maulderts (moles). (fn. 26)
When about 1189 the church was given to the new priory of Burscough the description used, 'the church of Ormskirk with all its appurtenances,' (fn. 27) suggests that there was here a rectory manor, subordinate to Lathom, but having distinct limits which probably coincided with those of the present township. (fn. 28)
In 1286 the canons obtained from the king and from Edmund, earl of Lancaster, the grant of a weekly market on Thursday at their manor or town of Ormskirk, and an annual fair, to continue for five days, commencing on the eve of the Decollation of St. John Baptist (29 August). They were to pay to the earl, by the hand of his bailiffs of Liverpool, a mark of silver every year, in lieu of the stallage or toll payable to the earl. (fn. 29) An additional fair, on Whit Tuesday, was granted by Edward IV, in 1461. (fn. 30)
These charters were followed or accompanied by the creation of Ormskirk into a free borough; Warin, prior of Burscough, and the canons granting that the burgesses and their heirs should have a free borough there for ever, as also 'all right customs and liberties as is more fully contained in the King's Charter.' Each burgess was to have an acre of land to his burgage, with appurtenances, and to pay 12d. a year; his corn was to be ground at the canons' mills; he might sell or grant his burgage as he pleased, provided that the service due to Burscough was secured; and the court of pleas called Portman mote was to be held every three weeks. The holder of a toft within the borough was to pay 6d. a year for it. (fn. 31) Many of the gentry of the surrounding country possessed burgages in the town, notably the lords of Lathom and Scarisbrick and the canons of Burscough themselves, the inhabitants—mercers, glovers, and other tradesmen—holding under them. (fn. 32) In 1357 Thomas de Sutton and Godith his wife purchased from Hugh the Cloth-seller and Quenilda his wife, and Richard the Stringer and Margery his wife, a messuage here; (fn. 33) and other similar acquisitions are recorded. (fn. 34) The borough seems to have become extinct before the sixteenth century.
The Crosse family had lands in Ormskirk at an early date, (fn. 35) and among other holders may be mentioned Croft, (fn. 36) Standish, (fn. 37) Gerard, (fn. 38) Scarisbrick, (fn. 39) and Parr. (fn. 40) A rental of 1524, compiled for the prior of Burscough, gives a list of tenants in Ormskirk, (fn. 41) and there is a list of tenants at will dated 1522. (fn. 42) After the suppression of the priory an annual account was rendered to the king by his bailiff, giving full details of tenants and services. (fn. 43) The subsidy rolls also supply lists of the inhabitants. (fn. 44)
The manor of Ormskirk, with its appurtenances, the windmill called Greetby Mill, another windmill and a water-mill, the new vicarage, and some other tenements were in July, 1603, granted by James I to William, earl of Derby, for £480; (fn. 45) and from that time the manor descended with the earldom.
The town was governed by the court-leet, which held its meetings in the old town hall in Church Street. (fn. 46) A local board of health was established in 1850, (fn. 47) and its authority displaced that of the court-leet, which was dissolved in 1876. (fn. 48) The market tolls were purchased by the local board in 1876 from Lord Derby for £1,000. (fn. 49) By the Act of 1894 the board became an urban district council; the town is divided into four wards, (fn. 50) each electing three members. The council owns the water supply, but gas is supplied by a private company established in 1833.
While the crown held the manor disputes arose as to the rights of the mills. (fn. 51)
Court rolls of the manor have been preserved for the period during which the manor was vested in the crown; the courts seem to have been held in conjunction with those of Burscough. (fn. 52) There are other court rolls at Knowsley.
The following, as 'Papists,' registered estates here in 1717: Thomas Bradshaw, maltster; Hugh Bulling, of Lathom; Edward Spencer, of Scarisbrick, and Lawrence Wilson. (fn. 53)
The Wesleyan Methodists built a chapel in 1810 in Chapel Street, but in 1878 removed to the new Emmanuel Church, near the railway station. (fn. 54)
In connexion with the Congregationalists the Itinerant Society of Ministers began preaching here in 1801. The services were not continuous. In 1826 part of a silk factory in Burscough Street was secured for a chapel, and a church was formed two years later. In 1834 the present church was built in Chapel Street, but the cause has never been very prosperous. (fn. 55)
The Presbyterian meeting-place had its origin in the ministrations of the ejected vicar of 1662. In 1689 his son and successor, Nathaniel Heywood, used Bury's house in Ormskirk as a meeting-place. (fn. 56) A chapel was built in 1696 in Chapel Street. (fn. 57) In 1755 the income of a sum of £10 was to be devoted to the benefit of the minister who should officiate at the chapel or meeting-house at Ormskirk; it seems to have been bequeathed by Alice Lawton. Henry Holland, in 1776, left £100 as an endowment for the Protestant Dissenting minister officiating in Ormskirk. A few years later (1783) land was acquired in Aughton Street on a 999 years' lease, and more in subsequent years, on which a minister's house was erected fronting the street, with a chapel and chapel-yard behind, 'for religious worship for Protestant Dissenters, usually nominated Presbyterians.' (fn. 58) Trustees were from time to time appointed, the last in 1881; and in 1890 they applied to the Charity Commissioners for power to sell the chapel and house, stating that these had been entirely disused for four years, (fn. 59) and that for thirty years there had been no congregation, the Unitarian body being practically extinct in Ormskirk and district. (fn. 60)
The adherents of the Roman Catholic Church have always been numerous, and in the times of persecution would be able to worship at some of the neighbouring mansions, as Scarisbrick and Moor Hall. (fn. 61) A house in Aughton Street, next to the Brewer's Arms, was known as the 'Mass House.' (fn. 62) The use of it probably continued until the chapel in Aughton was built, a short distance outside the Ormskirk boundary. (fn. 63)